Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One

Written by Michael Clawson

80/100

Oniony, experimental doc with fewer layers than there are syllables in its title, but still quite a few: set entirely in Central Park, we see a film crew in action as they make a fictional, ill-defined documentary, which its director says is about “sexuality,” without much further explanation. We also see that the crew is, in turn, being filmed by yet another film crew (the crew shooting that crew is off-screen, capturing the outermost layer of the film). That’s it, that’s as simply as I can think to put it. Each level has its moments of interest: when, at one point, the first crew debates what kind of movie they’re making, it’s striking how much the men apparently love the sound of their own voices, the women not so easily getting a word in. Perhaps most fascinating is how the levels are periodically collapsed through an inspired use of split screens, which led me to imagine how it might have worked as a multi-channel video installation versus as a feature film. Meta to the nth degree, its navel-gazing is in service of questions about performance versus authenticity, and the tension between a director as a creative individual and a crew as collective entity.

Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One Trailer

Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One is currently available to stream on the Criterion Channel and HBO Max.

Follow Michael on Letterboxd or connect with him on Twitter.

DXIFF 2021 Review: United States vs. Reality Winner

Written by Taylor Baker

35/100

Sonia Kennebeck follows up her 2020 documentary Enemies of the State up with a piece of trial propaganda entitled United States vs. Reality Winner. From the get-go there’s no question whose side we’re on, despite no clarity on why. It seems that playing flashy bombastic moments of Donald Trump on television are in Sonia’s opinion or her editor Maxine Goedicke enough to justify Reality’s leak of classified documents. It’s not that there isn’t a good argument for leaking documents(in my opinion), see Edward Snowden. It’s that there isn’t a justifiable case made. It’s presented as if we’re supposed to agree with these choices without any critical faculties. Betsy Reed, Editor in Chief of The Intercept at one point appears, asserting the importance of sharing these documents about the targeted attack on voting machines by the GRU, Russia’s Main Intelligence Directorate. The same Betsy Reed who has taken the opposite position when democratic leaders have won elections in The Intercept. Which makes one want to ask, “Which is it Betsy?” It’s times like this that one can see why Glenn Greenwald left the news institution he founded. For anyone perhaps needing a refresher, the man who collaborated to publish the documents leaked by Edward Snowden co-founded a news outlet entitled The Intercept. In October 2020 Greenwald formally broke ties and left the home he helped create, citing ideological directives and a lack of journalistic integrity. It seems the old journalist is right.

Reality Winner, who was freed this year, was a low-ranking counterintelligence contractor who worked as a translator. She was sentenced to five years and three months in prison, the most for any classified document leak. Natalia Dyer of Stranger Things fame plays Reality Winner’s voice actor in the film. As we run through the gamut of what happened to her after leaking the document. Despite no actual interiority or interrogation as to why this was the right choice. One gets the sense that none of this behavior would have been exhibited by Reality, nor by Sonia in making the film if literally, anyone other than Trump was in office. Which raises the question, if you wouldn’t take this action with another president in office, then why do you think you think we should give you carte blanche in this situation? Comey being fired is shown to coincide with her decision. But Reality never asserts this point within the film. No letter shows her saying she felt the intelligence agencies were all corrupt. Instead, we learn of her worrying about a date she couldn’t make after being arrested, being upset she couldn’t teach a yoga class. Human concerns that are affecting to be sure. But she never owns up during the interview to having leaked documents when asked. Which she did do. It’s hard to find the hero in such a mixed and politically motivated character. One that hasn’t demonstrated a pattern of truth-telling in a project that clearly and deliberately is meant to be trial propaganda like other documentaries released before it this year, LFG, Demi Lovato: Dancing with the Devil, Stockholm Syndrome. 

After a cut to an exterior shot of a rural home with a truck parked in front, we hear her parents trying to speak to her on the phone but there’s a bad connection. “For what purpose?” You might ask. It makes as much sense as not explaining in detail her thought process and premeditation to leak the document. I have no idea. What’s particularly interesting is the allegation that Richard Esposito and Matthew Cole, two reporters for The Intercept at the time are said to have turned over a copy of the document and possibly incriminated multiple sources. The allegation seems on its face to be especially convincing and damning of Esposito who currently serves as Deputy Commissioner of Strategic Communication for the NYPD after previously serving as Department Commissioner of Public Information for the NYPD. Both he and Matthew Cole who is still with The Intercept did not choose to comment. But for those intrepid few who seek further information you may learn this actually a common career evolution for journalists and requires much more noncircumstantial evidence. Rather than a documentary on the issues that may be raised with the 1917 Espionage Act United States vs. Reality Winner concerns itself with why it’s everyone but Reality’s fault for her choices. Which is odd when the premise you’d think they’d want to argue is that she had a responsibility or duty to her nation. It’s also curious how deliberately unclear the film chose to be about Reality’s present circumstances until the very end. Perhaps they’d painted themselves into a corner with how heavily they leaned and shot the film with the goal being for her defense. Its points are largely lost now due to her release.

If you’re interested about this topic and wish to learn much more than the documentary details I recommend listening to Glenn Greenwald discuss it with Matt Taibbi and Katie Halper on the Useful Idiots Podcast. Their discussion begins at 41:50.

United States vs. Reality Winner Trailer

United States vs. Reality Winner was screened as part of the 2021 edition of the Double Exposure Investigative Film Festival.

You can follow more of Taylor’s thoughts on LetterboxdTwitter, and Rotten Tomatoes.

DXIFF 2021 Review: 3212 Un-Redacted

Written by Taylor Baker

75/100

Brian Epstein’s 3212 Un-Redacted presents a damning expose on the betrayal, cover-up, and conspiracy that occurred in October 2017. Deployed in Niger ODA(Operational Detachment Alpha) 3212 who were tasked against their Captain’s recommendation with pursuing a significant target in Tongo Tongo by their AFRICOM leadership. The secret sauce to the conspiracy? They were accompanied by CIA agents tasked with assassinating DounDoun Cheffou. The presence of these agents was redacted from all public and official documentation of what happened that day. Instead, we learn that AFRICOM labeled them in their presentation of what occurred that day as an unassuming “truck number three” with no real difference or distinction between them and any other truck within the presentation.

So why were they framed? Why did leadership lie? And how do we know for sure what is true? That’s the trick. We can’t get absolute truth about the series of events due to the redaction of the information. Epstein in conjunction with James Gordon Meek paints a damning examination of what can be asserted with absolute fact and what can be assumed based on the unredacted paper trail and soldiers who had worked alongside with ODA 3212. We know it was in the best interest of leadership to cover up a failed assassination mission where the captain told his superiors that he didn’t think the mission could be executed. We know they smeared a member of 3212 for allowing what occurred to happen despite him being in the United States to watch the birth of his daughter. And we know that the true events of the day have been put under a 25-year redaction.

The members of ODA 3212 that were on mission passed away that day in a firefight against an enormous force. They were wearing body cams and the film is compromised of large portions of those fateful minutes where each member was shot in gripping presentation and depressing detail. The documentary painstakingly shows the day-to-day lives of the family members that the fallen ODA members are survived by in conjunction with ABC Investigative journalist James Gordon Meek walking us through not only the details of the day. But the decisions made by different positions of power within the military to cover it up.

There’s a hard limit to how much we can know due to the top-down denial that accompanied the mission from the start. How could 3212 be out on an unsanctioned assassination mission when less than a day before the mission their Captain had asked to wait? Why weren’t any of the requested and available US support teams deployed? Why did the French display the show of force to eventually drive back the insurgents? We may not know now, but we should learn more in 2046. Unfortunately, many of the parents of the fallen soldiers may not be alive for answers then. 3212 Un-Redacted isn’t a glossy, shiny, overproduced documentary, it’s a gritty documentary composed of investigative rigor and direct presentation. It’s the type of documentary that reminds you there are still great journalists working in the medium of film.

3212 Un-Redacted Trailer

3212 Un-Redacted was screened as part of the 2021 edition of the Double Exposure Investigative Film Festival and is currently streaming on Hulu.

You can follow more of Taylor’s thoughts on LetterboxdTwitter, and Rotten Tomatoes.

VIFF 2021 Review: Maya

Written by Anna Harrison

70/100

Maya starts as the story of a relationship between a tiger, Maya, and her keeper, Mohsen Teyerani, a taxidermist-cum-zookeeper at the Mashhad Zoo in Iran. Mohsen hand-raised Maya as a cub, and home videos reveal her frolicking around his house, playing with his wife and children; eventually, she moved to the zoo, where she and Mohsen have become an odd couple celebrity: he is completely at ease with the tiger, calling to her and petting her like she’s a dog rather than a 300-pound feline. Zoo guests can even get in the cage with Maya as Mohsen looks on.

It’s a simultaneously touching and unsettling sight. Mohsen clearly adores Maya, and she seems to adore him, yet her cage is small, the flooring is concrete, and there is nowhere to hide from the guests; we watch her pace restlessly up and down the fenceline, bright golden eyes glittering. Directors Jamshid Mojaddadi and Anson Hartford, while they give commentary elsewhere in the film, only use the camera to show us this, condemning nothing but allowing viewers to take in the strange dichotomy found in Mohsen and Maya’s relationship: he loves her, but is that love enough? 

Mohsen takes Maya out to the fields of the Caspian Sea for a film, and there she experiences the outdoors for the first time, becoming the first tiger seen in the area for 60 years after the Caspian tigers were driven to extinction. Mojaddadi and Hartford craft some beautiful shots as Maya prowls the grasses, and it’s clear that she is far more comfortable here than her concrete cage. Mohsen knows this too, but knows that she can’t be released into the wild, either, and so they have to go back to the zoo. “If Maya could talk,” Mohsen tells the camera, “she would tell me that I gave her false hope. It was like a short-lived dream. ‘You showed me a whole new world, I got used to it, I learned to love it, then you took it away from me and brought me back to this horrible place.’ These are the things she would say to me, and I wouldn’t know how to answer that.”

After her sojourn to the Caspian Sea, Maya evolves into something else when news of tiger remains found at the zoo comes to light. Suddenly a whole lot more ethical questions pop up, and some of them implicate Mohsen; while he claims innocence, at one point, the phrase “just following orders” arises, which unearths a set of very thorny questions. Questions of power and economics come into play, government employees investigate the zoo and rattle off canned lines about protecting the environment and the animals, and the stress causes Maya to lash out in various ways. While some of these questions were gently posed at the beginning of the film (so gently in fact that you would be forgiven for forgetting these elements, which would have more weight had they been brought up with more frequency), they are thrown into sharp relief here; by and large, Mojaddadi and Hartford leave the audience to come to their own conclusions, and while they occasionally offer their own thoughts, the most effective moments come when they let the camera do the talking. The second half proves more interesting than the first as Maya wades into some moral quandaries, many of which pose tantalizing questions that are left unanswered, but the film proves a quietly affecting piece, even if it’s better at raising questions than addressing them.

Maya Trailer

Maya is was screened as part of the 2021 edition of the Vancouver International Film Festival.

You can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

DXIFF 2021 Review: The Rescue

Written by Taylor Baker

50/100

Oscar Winning Directors Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi follow up their harrowing Oscar Winning documentary Free Solo with a film about the extraction mission conducted by Thai Seals and Divers in Thailand to save a youth soccer team that was trapped in the cave. The film is composed primarily of historical reenactment footage, with event footage captured by the many cameras on site during the extraction, and talking head style interviews recounting the process and journey undertaken. The Rescue begins with some shots of flooded farmland in Thailand before cutting to Vern Unsworth pointing at a map trying to explain the only way they can get the children out of the cave while someone translates his English to Thai so the man who seemingly presides over the operation can understand. It effectively puts you immediately in the middle of the chaos in an effort to feel what it’s like to accomplish this extraction. Not unlike Chin and Chai Vasarhelyi’s way of looking straight down the sheer cliff faces in Free Solo to put you right there on the mountain side with Honnold.

The boys had wandered into the cave playing that day while celebrating a birthday. The cave functioned as a sort of playground for them to play in and typically when the cave system begins flooding in July it is closed off. But in June when they boys entered it and had not yet been sealed to the public. While they were inside a sort of flash flood occurred that immediately sealed the cave system with water forcing them up to the highest point in the caves with limited oxygen supply in the pocket they made it to. Vern Unsworth(who you may know from the kerfuffle with Elon Musk during the extraction.) instructs the team heading up operations that the only chance they’ll have to successfully rescue the boys is to get the best cave divers in the world.

Which leads us into an introductory sequence with Rick Stanton and John Volunthen, renowned as the world’s best cave divers. From there we get an amalgamation of stitched together footage and voice over recounting their arrival to the camp and their recollection of the difficult process to convince the authorities to not only allow them access to the caves but to let them perform the extraction one at a time by injecting a medication to knock the boys out so they could be extracted one at a time by the divers. Convincing Dr. Richard Harris one of the best anaesthesiologists in the world to come up from Australia to help with administering the drugs. It would be a harrowing documentary if we didn’t already know how it ended more than three years ago. It plays like a thriller and a bit like PR film for the subjects. Their look at Honnold was much more neutral, it was clear they loved him, but they let in his faults, his ego, and some of his callousness. Characteristics that would have been welcome this time around from anyone besides those who are presented to have impeded the rescue mission. Chin and Chai Vasarhelyi are clearly here to stay. Let’s hope the next thing they turn their cameras toward they’re a bit more objective or more transparent about their roles during filming.

The Rescue Trailer

The Rescue was screened as part of the 2021 edition of the Double Exposure Investigative Film Festival and is currently screening in limited theatrical release nationwide.

You can follow more of Taylor’s thoughts on LetterboxdTwitter, and Rotten Tomatoes.

The Velvet Underground

Written by Patrick Hao

62/100

Todd Haynes is no stranger to deconstructive takes on legendary rock and roll stars. His short film Superstar, which sees Haynes depict the life of Carpenters singer, Karen Carpenter, using Barbie dolls put him on the map as a filmmaker to watch. He further deconstructs the life of a fictional version of David Bowie and Iggy Pop/Lou Reed hybrid in Velvet Goldmine. It seems particularly apropos that the title takes the word velvet from The Velvet Underground’s influence. With I’m Not There, Haynes deconstructs the persona of Bob Dylan through vignettes that represent his public persona.

All of these projects make Haynes particularly adept to handle a documentary about the esoteric 60’s rock icons, The Velvet Underground in the appropriately titled film, The Velvet Underground. Rather than making a traditional straight forward documentary on the band, Haynes uses the story of the band in order to explore the cultural landscape of downtown New York City in the late 60’s. This was an especially booming time for the arts scenes with folk singers, authors, artists, and filmmakers. It makes sense then that Haynes not only collects voices that knew the band well but also pulled in cultural critics like Amy Taubin and experimental filmmaker Jonas Mekas to give their testament to the arts scene of the time.

Mekas’s appearance in the film looms large as this is his final appearance after his death in 2019. The film is dedicated to him not only in name but in the way that Haynes utilizes a lot of the same techniques Mekas used in his experimental films. Haynes tells the story of the band, its members, and their impact through an impressive array of collages and kinetic images to portray the vibes of the time.

Velvet Underground isn’t a hagiography of any sort in which everything presented is a testament to the band’s greatness. Rather, Haynes allows the music to play continuously throughout, underscoring the information presented. This presentation underlines how much the band was a presence of the time.

The film also presents the two faces of the band, seemingly opposite of each other. Lou Reed was the lyricist who wrote painfully personal songs about his personal depression and insecurity, it’s unclear if his self-destruction was done purposefully to gather material. On the other side is John Cale, the musical experimental impresario whose compositions still feel radical to this day.  

Obviously, the quiet hum of nostalgia, the abundance of artistic creativity, radiates throughout the film. Many of the characters who were there have long been gone. Lou Reed has been dead since 2013. Guitarist Sterling Morrison has been dead since 1995. Periphery figures that were important to the band’s image such as Nico and Andy Warhol have passed as well. But the film does not shy away from the unpleasantness of a mercurial figure like Reed, who would frequently drive the band apart with his demeanor. An all too brief section recounts the rampant sexism of the Avant Garde art scene of the Warhol Factory. If anything, The Velvet Underground is a bit too straight in its presentation as Haynes decided chronologically would be the best way to tell this story. But it seems that Haynes is not necessarily interested in the information presented with this documentary. Rather, he is out to capture a time of artistic creativity that can only become legend. Just as the Velvet Underground band itself has become legend.

The Velvet Underground Trailer

The Velvet Underground is currently available to stream on Apple TV+ and in limited theatrical release.

You can follow Patrick and his passion for film on Letterboxd and Twitter.

DXIFF 2021 Review: Writing with Fire

Written by Maria Athayde

75/100

Writing with Fire is a “fly on the wall” documentary, directed by Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh, about the women behind Khabar Lahariya, Waves of News in English, India’s only newspaper run entirely by women. This inside look into the women that run the Khabar Lahariya is much more than a story about journalism. It is also a story about social hierarchy, classism, familial relationships, democracy, personal risk, and a woman’s place in the work environment. If you are thinking this is a lot to cover in 94 minutes you are not mistaken. To provide context to their story and situate the viewers the directors use title cards throughout the documentary to try and tell the bigger story behind what we see on screen. At times, this framing device was distracting but it did not detract enough from my overall viewing experience. 

Founded in 2002, in Utter Pradesh, a state in Northern India close to the border with Nepal, we are introduced to the Khabar Lahariya newspaper and the women behind the operation. During the documentary we become most acquainted with Meera Devi, the paper’s chief reporter and later bureau chief. It is through her eyes that we understand how the Khabar Lahariya expanded from a small operation to a paper that now attracts significant following online with over 150 million views on their Youtube channel. Meera emphasizes throughout that she believes in the power of journalism and that journalism is the essence of a democracy. 

This story however is not just a glossy look into the power of journalism. Instead, it is a story of the personal risks associated with the profession. The women of the Khabar Lahariya along with the directors describe the risk associated with this profession in India. One reporter mentions that she is afraid about what her profession could mean to her family and that people question her professional integrity especially when unfavorable stories are published. We see these attacks on screen through comments on Khabar Lahariya Youtube channel that call the journalists names and insult their reporting. Thomas and Sushmit provide a bit more context to the personal risk associated with journalism when they use one of the final title cards for the movie to highlight that over 40 journalists have been killed during the last 20 years in India making it one of the world’s most dangerous places for journalists.     

The documentary really excels when it is telling the story about the newspaper and its evolution over its 19 years of existence. The most interesting way the filmmakers capture this transition is the juxtaposition of print journalism and the shift to digital reporting. It was fascinating to see how the majority of the women at the Khabar Lahariya quickly adapted to this transition to digital and capitalized on the potential digital reporting had to allow them to reach a bigger audience and and increase their income. Smartphones became the vehicle through which the women at the Khabar Lahariya told stories that would have most likely have gone unreported if it weren’t for them. 

There is nothing too innovative to see in this documentary stylistically. What sticks with you is the willingness of these journalists to go out there and capture these stories. Overall, this is mostly an inspirational piece of documentary filmmaking about the persistence of women who want to report on a story no matter the risks associated with it.

Writing with Fire Trailer

Writing with Fire was screened as part of the 2021 edition of the Double Exposure Investigative Film Festival.

You can follow Maria Manuella Pache de Athayde on LetterboxdTwitter, or Instagram and view more of what she’s up to here.

DXIFF 2021 Review: Attica

Written by Maria Athayde

80/100

It is a funny thing how the past is a window into the present and the present is a window into the past. That was the overwhelming feeling I had after watching Attica. To backtrack, Attica recounts in painstaking detail the story behind the largest prison rebellion in US history which started on October 9th, 1971 in Attica, New York. But behind the rebellion this documentary tells a much bigger story. It tells us the story about a system that is meant to keep people down. Using historical footage, surveillance videos, audio recordings, and first person testimony, director Stanley Nelson Jr. expertly crafts a story about humanity. Nelson Jr. reminds us about the prisoners’ humanity and indicts a system that is meant to keep men in chains.  

It is the testimony and first person account of former inmates that participated in the rebellion that bring this story to life. Former inmates systematically recount the racist administration network and brutalization they suffered behind the prison walls. Examples of this brutalization included beating inmates with lead pipes, feeding pork to Muslim inmates, poor sanitary conditions, and lack of an infirmary for treatment. In their own words, inmates recounted that they did not cease being human just because they broke the law, but they were treated in a way that made it seem as if they no longer had basic human rights or dignities. This narrative and tension is the throughline through the majority of the documentary. Nelson does not stray away from this recounting until the last quarter  of the documentary where it culminates in a brutal, shocking, and infuriating last 30 minutes that documents the death of 33 inmates. 

The ending of this story sounds too familiar with our present moment. Among inmates and prison guards 43 men died. Unsurprisingly zero convictions were given to the state police who were sent in by Governor Rockefeller to gain control of the prison. This is an important piece of historical filmmaking that documents our broken prisons system and the lack of humanity that is ascribed to prisoners. Ultimately, what made this documentary excel were former inmates’ willingness to share their stories in their own words and Nelson’s ability to craft a story that reminds us of our shared humanity to matter the circumstances.

Attica Trailer

Attica was screened as part of the 2021 edition of the Double Exposure Investigative Film Festival.

You can follow Maria Manuella Pache de Athayde on LetterboxdTwitter, or Instagram and view more of what she’s up to here.

Episode 113: Best of 2021 So Far

“I believe that as much as you influence your film, the film also influences you. You think you are in control but then things happen that you didn’t anticipate. That’s cinema, and you need to be open and listen to your film.”

Dea Kulumbegashvili, Director of Beginning

Links: Apple Podcasts | Castbox | Deezer | Gaana | Google Podcasts | iHeartRadio | JioSaavn | LibSyn | Player FM | RadioPublic | Spotify | Stitcher | YouTube

This week on Drink in the Movies Michael & Taylor discuss their 10 favorite films of 2021 so far, as well as hand out show awards for Wounded Soldiers, Squandered Talents, Best Ensemble, Best Documentary, Best OST, Best Actor and Actress(Lead and Supporting), Best Directorial Debut, and Best Classic Discovery.

Visit us on your preferred Social Media Platform Letterboxd, Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

Michael Clawson on Letterboxd | Taylor Baker on Letterboxd

Forget which film you wanted to check out while listening? Find links to both Taylor and Michael’s lists below: Michael’s Top 10 on Letterboxd | Taylor’s Top 10 on Letterboxd

Toronto International Film Festival 2021 Review: Julia

Written by Maria Athayde

60/100 

Julia directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West, who were nominated for best documentary feature for RBG in 2019, chronicles the life of American icon and chef Julia Child. Much like RBG this is an extremely paint by numbers documentary that does not offer the audience anything new. In fact, I would suggest that the majority of audiences would be better off reading Julia Child’s wikipedia page, watching the 2009 Julie & Julia feature based on Julia’s life or reading her autobiography, which she co-authored with her nephew, called My Life in France. I am certain that all those alternatives will provide much better value for those that want to get to know Julia. 

Toronto International Film Festival 2021

The biggest misstep is that everything we see in this documentary is surface-level and predictable. First, we get to know Julia before she became a culinary icon. Then we explore Julia’s role in the Office of Strategic Services during WWII. Next, the filmmakers discuss the time she spent in France, her subsequent success and love for food. Unfortunately, all these events are glossed over and there is no clear throughline that makes this documentary flow as a cohesive piece, nor did it keep me interested.

The more I watch documentaries and get to cover them for the website the more aware I am that I want something different. A simple summary, archival footage, and testimonies throughout the documentary often do not add anything new to stories. I unquestionably believe Julia’s story and stories like hers should be told. For example, In an interview about the film to The Wrap the directors mentioned how the pandemic had brought them closer to Julia. Perhaps focusing on more unconventional points like these or trying to tie Julia’s story to the present would have made a more compelling narrative.

Julia Trailer

Julia was screened as part of the 2021 edition of the Toronto International Film Festival and opens in New York & Los Angeles November 5th.

You can follow Maria Manuella Pache de Athayde on LetterboxdTwitter, or Instagram and view more of what she’s up to here.